Smile Means Chisel in Greek

As someone who majored in a foreign language in college (I wasn’t thinking at all about how I’d pay the bills upon graduation), I have spent a lot of time thinking about the things that get lost in translation. Words are not mathematical equations. The word for something in French does not “equal” the word for that same thing in Tagalog.

Words are not just the signifier for objects. They have cultural and emotional connotations. Don’t believe me? If you say swastika to a German, it will bring up a completely different range of memories and emotions than if you say svastika, the word for the very same symbol, to someone in India. There, it’s not the dreaded symbol of the Nazi party. It’s a symbol of good fortune, luck, and well-being. You’ll often see the svastika on wedding invitations.

On top of that, pile on the fact that some languages are vastly more complex than others. When translating from a language that consists of, say, 430,000 words, to a language that has 100,000 words, how can you “make” one word equal another?

It amuses me when someone believes that they have fundamental comprehension of any text, particularly the Bible, which has been translated through so many languages, so many cultures, and so many historical perspectives. It’s like handing a high school class a first edition of the Canterbury Tales and asking them to convert it into modern slang. You’ll get wildly different results.

Is it any wonder that there are so many misunderstandings within the United Nations? I would argue that it’s virtually impossible for people who speak different languages and come from different cultures to completely understand each other. The beauty is that they even make the attempt.

I am someone who revels in the differences in this world. Without that variety, things would be awfully uninspiring. If we weren’t occasionally forced to entertain different perspectives, our minds would become rigid, inflexible and closed. Then what would be the point?



11 thoughts on “Smile Means Chisel in Greek

  1. It is fascinating to study root words and how they have travelled east and west. The Thai greeting of sa-wat-dee comes from that same Sanskrit root which is swastika in German! So as a Thai greeting it means “be well” or good-hello. And our Greek and Latin roots are very useful for understanding; right now Advent season means to go forward, similar to advance. Words, words, words! Fun to study.

    1. If I could have anything in the world, it would be a hard copy of the Oxford English Dictionary, multi-volume, complete with display stand. There’s something about flipping through that amazing book at random… I know you can get a digital version, but it’s just not the same.

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